Did Martial or Statius really believe that the Culex was by Vergil? Why does a work written on the death of Maecenas belong among the Virgilian pseudepigrapha? Do ancient fakes actually intend to deceive? These are just some of the fascinating questions given fresh and stimulating answers by this year’s winner of the Alexander G. McKay Prize for Vergilian Studies, Irene Peirano’s book The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake: Latin Pseudepigrapha in Context.
Peirano’s study, which reads like the work of a seasoned scholar and not a first book, begins its investigation of Roman “fakes” where traditional studies have tended to end, namely with a declaration that they are forgeries. But instead of seeing “fakes” as malicious forgeries designed to deceive, Peirano situates them in the literary and educational culture of ancient Rome and treats them as a valuable part of the reception of Vergil and Tibullus. She shows that the poems are sophisticated literary games in search of a learned audience that can see their ludic intent, and appreciate them as witty homages to their purported author. The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake vividly demonstrates how these anonymous authors bring renewed life to favorite texts and literally prevent “closure” on the Virgilian book. Our own culture’s obsession with prequels, sequels, and even fan fiction attests to our own inability to let favorite stories and authors go. Peirano’s work allows us to place the Roman fake on a continuum with this sort of creative engagement, as well as with the traditional intertextual strategies of canonical works.
It might seem paradoxical to award a Vergilian Society book prize to a study of poems that derive their fame from their status as NOT-Virgil. But The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake succeeds in showing what we can learn about Virgil’s poems and their reception by giving these fakes the attention they so clearly seek through their flagrant affiliation with Virgil (and other poets). In a field dominated by big names and texts, Peirano fully redeems the anonymous “fake.”